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Calusa masks draw viewers at Sanibel Library

By Staff | Nov 27, 2009

A long extinct but once powerful tribe used to call Southwest Florida home.

The Calusa Indians are known for their legendary hunting prowess and use of shells. They were in fact known “The Shell People”.

The Sanibel Library is working to capture some of their history as well as the wonder in the minds of patrons.

The library staff have coordinated with artist Collier County artist Peter Sottong to have his replicas of Calusa masks on display.

Cathy Hed, a Sanibel Library staff member, said the display has been eliciting attention from patrons of all ages. She said one young boy came looking to check out books on the subject of the Calusas and others have inquired about the ancient tribe.

The display will be available through Wednesday, Dec. 30.

Hed said she is delighted to draw people’s attention to local history in a fun and captivating way.

“It’s just super important to Sanibel and our own heritage,” Hed said.

Sottong whose work is on display is equally elated to draw attention to the Calusas.

“I think it’s a useful way to get people interested in the local history of the place,” he said. “We really do have a unique history in Southwest Florida.”

He said the Calusa display is especially useful for transients and visitors who do not know much about the area’s history.

The Lely resident has put his work on display in museums along the coast.

Sottong made the pieces out of latex molds from which a plaster-like substance is used to make the life-like replicas of religious and ceremonial masks. His work is based on original paintings by Florida artist Theodore Morris of Frank Hamilton Cushing’ archeological dig at the north end of Marco Island in 1895. Called the Pepper-Hearst expedition, it resulted in the discovery of over 1,000 wooden artifacts: products of the Calusa Indian culture that existed between 2,000 and 500 years ago, according to the web site www.keymarcocat.com. During the expedition masks preserved in mud were unearthed. But due upon exposure to the oxygen, the masks began to deteriorate. The images of the masks painted as they were unearthed before they crumbled. The work was to be used to document the historic find which included the Key Marco Cat – a Calusa mystical half-human, half-panther figure.

Sottong who is retired from Annapolis, Md. became interested in recreating the masks from the paintings after seeing an exhibit on Marco Island.

“It’s fun because of the history in our area,” Sottong said. “It kind of makes it real.”

For those interested in learning more about the Calusas Hed said the library carries an extensive Florida section. But if there is a particular book one is interested and that isn’t available, the Sanibel Library is connected with interlibrary loan service.

For more information, call the library at 472-2483 or go to www.sanlib.org.